Transparency key to credibility

It’s ironic that the Cape Cod Times’ final ombudsman column addresses transparency.

During my 18-month tenure as ombudsman, no one topic has moved readers to write more than this one. From the front page to the classified section, Times readers want to know how and why the newspaper’s editors make the decisions they do. And they’ve never been shy about expressing their opinions.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, it is the concept of opinion that moves readers most. I’ve fielded dozens of comments from readers about the perceived bias of reporters, editors, columnists, photographers and letter writers.

One week a reporter is too liberal; the next he is too conservative. One day the paper excludes right-leaning letters; the next it excludes left-leaning letters. How can reader perceptions vary so wildly when they are reading the same newspaper?

Part of the reason is that some readers increasingly seek out only ideas and opinions that mirror their own and reject the legitimacy of all others. But that doesn’t pertain to everyone who sees bias.

Some readers perceive bias because they don’t know the background or affiliation of the writers, especially on the editorial pages. Some readers believe that full transparency is necessary on every page of the papers. Reporters, columnists and letter writers alike should declare their political interests so that readers can apply the appropriate filter on what they read, according to some readers (and more than a few pundits).

I may be naive, but I still trust in the ethics that govern all journalists. I believe journalists at the Times really do work hard to keep their work free from their own biases, and shouldn’t have to declare such affiliations.

Letter writers and guest columnists, however, are not held to the same standards that journalists impose on themselves. They should be identified if they represent an agency or point of view that could lead to a conflict of interest. Identification helps readers better understand the motives of a writer.

A recent “My View” column provides a good example. In a piece headlined “Obama’s contempt for the governed,” writer Walter G. Bilowz accused the White House of aiming to redistribute wealth and “give amnesty to illegal aliens and register them to vote (Democratic, of course).” Bilowz identified himself to the Times only as a Chatham resident. He failed to mention that he is chair of the Chatham Republican Town Committee, a fact that could have provided readers, who responded en masse to the piece, further insight into his column.

Some opinion writers self-identify their political affiliations; often they do not.

In the interest of transparency, I call on all Times letter writers and opinion columnists — from local folks like me to national columnists like Maureen Dowd and Kathleen Parker — to declare their political leanings when it is relevant to the content of the work they submit for publication.

Transparency is also the reason I’ve decided to step down as ombudsman. This summer I accepted a position with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, an organization whose work is featured in the news nearly every day. Although I feel confident that I could have remained objective about any news story, including those about WHOI, I feared that readers could perceive bias. I advised Editor Paul Pronovost and Editorial Page Editor Bill Mills that I should step aside, and they agreed.

Unfortunately, Pronovost decided that my departure provided a good opportunity to discontinue the ombudsman position. On that, we do not agree. Times readers want, need, and appreciate an ombudsman who will keep them and the newspaper honest. They’ve had three over the years, and I hope they’ll have another one day soon.

Although my job as ombudsman has been to field complaints and concerns about coverage, I’ve been thrilled to serve in this important role. Many thanks to Pronovost and Mills for their confidence in me and the freedom to define this position. Thanks also to the Times staff, who always greeted my inquiries with grace and often went out of their way to address concerns.

Lastly, Cape Cod Times readers deserve my most enthusiastic gratitude. We didn’t always agree on the issues they raised about the pages of the Times, but they challenged me to consider community journalism — especially in the Internet age — in new and exciting ways. Please know that your comments continue to be welcome and taken seriously at the Times. Keep writing.

This column was originally published in The Cape Cod Times on Sept. 5, 2010.

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